What started out as a dream is now so close to completion you can virtually reach out and touch it.
The board of directors of the Arts, Science & Technology Educational Corporation of Tehachapi gathered Saturday for an informal viewing of the nearly completed Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Agriculture, Math Center at Tehachapi High School.
In 2014, AST first embarked on the mission to build the center under the leadership of its then-chairman, the late Joel Beckmann. The STEAM Center got its first green light when AST received a $50,000 grant from The Bakersfield Californian Foundation. The nonprofit organization of volunteers has since raised approximately $1 million through grants and donations to enhance the experiences of local students, as well as build on the resources available to educators.
Laura Lundberg, who has taken over the helm as AST's chairman since Beckmann's passing, said the STEAM Center will be completed once funding is secured for the remaining electrical work needed to power the rest of the building.
"I'm sure Joel is up there beaming and just thrilled," Lundberg said. "This was his dream, and he asked me just before he passed to make sure that the STEAM Center gets opened and it gets finished. So, it's been my life's work for the past two and a half years."
AST has focused on giving tours so people can see what has been accomplished. In addition, the center is becoming a focal point for club and community meetings, hands-on practical applications and is a display area for local STEAM industries.
Constructed out of an unused 30 feet x 32 feet portable building that once stood at Monroe High School and was moved to Tehachapi High, the STEAM Center now houses a full-sized space shuttle simulator built by students and community volunteers with the outer shell made by local contractor Richard Eckols, and equipped with NASA astronaut training software.
"This is the real NASA software that was used to train the astronauts through the end of the space shuttle program," AST board member Thane Lundberg said of the external operation module. "This is the first American module that was hooked up to the international space station — the Russian module that we hooked up to it — that was the beginning. That mission happened 20 years ago yesterday."
Also visiting the STEAM Center Saturday was Mission Commander Lt. Col. Rick Sturckow, who was on that mission 20 years ago.
"I think it's absolutely fantastic that we can have this here in Tehachapi to show these young people the excitement of space travel and space exploration to get them excited about all the other things that are going on out there," said Sturckow, who was formerly with NASA and flew the space shuttle four times.
Sturckow said the simulator was so realistic that he had "flashbacks" of some of his missions when he entered it.
"It's been 20 years ago this week that we launched on the space shuttle Endeavor, carrying up the first piece of the international space station, and we joined that together with the first Russian piece, and that was the beginning," he said.
Also joining the visitors at the viewing was Mark Pestana, retired NASA research pilot and engineer as well as AST board member.
"It's exciting to have a very realistic space shuttle orbiter simulation," said Pestana. "In fact today, it was really validated when an actual shuttle commander here could talk about how realistic it is. To get that feedback is really important to us."
Found sitting inside the space shuttle simulator were Ethan Riley, 16, and Charles Johnson, 14, who explained various knobs and levers.
"I want to be an electronics engineer or I want to go in the Marines," said Johnson, pointing down to the instrument panel. "I want to be the guy that wires this."
Riley said he wants to be a software engineer, the guy who programs it.
"That's what I have been working on here and studying the past year," said Riley.
Asked how the simulator stacks up to a video game, Johnson said, "This is way better."
Added Riley, "This is much more realistic, and much more in-depth."
The STEAM Center also features a virtual reality lab, which includes games, a sun scope used for viewing eclipses and a nighttime telescope.
"They (the telescopes) are going to go in four astronomy trailers that we are developing that will be able to go from site to site and let kids experience not only sun scoping, but also we have a Meade that we can do some night scoping," said Laura Lundberg.
Thus far, Edwards Air Force Base has donated $10,000 toward the estimated $40,000 necessary to complete the electrical upgrades so the STEAM Center can officially open.
Other than electrical upgrades, Thane Lundberg said AST would like to add other equipment to the center which will serve the needs of students in both public and private schools. This wish list includes graphing calculators, high-capacity computers, portable virtual reality system, portable generator, electronic whiteboard, and supplies for the Intermediate Space Challenge and Rocketry Club.
In addition to monetary donations, the STEAM Center needs people who are interested in volunteering and have the ability to teach or supervise a class.
"We are also looking for ideas from instructors, or also from students," said Nick Altieri, AST co-founder and board member. "We want this to be student-driven. What do you want to see? What do you want to study and learn about? We need people."